Donald Trump behaved in the second debate just like I expected him to, as someone who knows that he is losing and needs to do something drastic to halt the slide. He indulged in his usual hyperbole because he is a man who speaks only in superlatives and the subtlety of a comparative seems to be lost on him. He said that the government is totally incompetent in every conceivable way and that they make terrible deals and don’t know how to wage wars. He attacked Obamacare and said the Iran deal was the worst in the history of deal making. The list of US failures went on and on. You wondered if anyone in the government was even able to tie their shoelaces.
He also let loose with a barrage of attacks on Hillary Clinton as a person and as a public figure and her husband Bill. Unlike the first debate where he looked unprepared and off-balance, here he had clearly learned every single thing that he could say that he thought was bad about her and he let loose with the entire arsenal. Here is the transcript.
Did he succeed in his mission to destroy her candidacy? I don’t think so. His performance would have undoubtedly pleased his fans who hate Clinton with a passion and were just waiting for him to say all those things. So I can imagine that there were a lot of
hivehigh-fives being exchanged in Trumpland. But he was like a washed up boxer, flailing away at his opponent hoping that something will land and knock the opponent out. But he failed.
I doubt that he would have swayed any Clinton supporters away from her. Most importantly, any people still undecided out there (yes, all three of them) might have found his pitch too strident. He gave mostly cursory responses to the questions before pivoting to a Clinton attack. He looked like a desperate man, dour and angry and peevish the whole evening. I do not recall him cracking a single smile. He prowled around the stage while she was speaking. He said that she was a total failure in life, all talk and no action. He constantly called her a liar (which is rich given his own record of serial lying) and he said he would appoint a prosecutor to investigate her and that if he were president she would be in jail. He said that Clinton “has tremendous hate in her heart”. He even, at one point, referred to her as the devil. This must have been catnip to his supporters but so over-the-top that it was cringe inducing in its naked venom.
He interrupted constantly, both Clinton and the moderators. He whined that the moderators were stacked against him by interrupting him more than they did her, giving him less time, not asking her about her emails, and saying that it looked like it was three against one. It was childish.
She, on the other hand, did not counterpunch all that much and seemed content to either dodge or absorb the blows. She did say that the recording revealed exactly what kind of man he is and again brought up his past comments against women, immigrants, Muslims, and the disabled, Apart from some occasions where she seemed a little annoyed and defensive, for the most part she seemed composed and even relaxed, smiling often. Her defense of Obamacare was good but her defense of her emails and her Wall Street speeches was weak. She spoke to the questioners directly. I was surprised that she only passingly mentioned the large number of Republicans who are disavowing Trump. But later I figured it must be deliberate, in that she is hoping for more defections and that if she highlighted it too much, that may discourage them, fearing that they will be seen as helping her.
But the tackiest part of the evening, and the thing that I think will please his die-hand fans the most and repulse everyone else, was Trump bringing up the stories of the women that he said that Bill Clinton had abused. Even worse, he had held a press conference with the four women ninety minutes before the debate. That was in such poor taste and such a transparent ploy to divert attention away from the recent recordings involving him that I think it will backfire. Confronting a wife who stayed loyal to her husband with the women involved in his infidelities is something that will cause most people to recoil in disgust, unless they really, really hate the wife. Who does something like that?
There was little new that we learned about Clinton. But with Trump we did. After being asked three times whether he had actually done the things that he had said on the recording, he said he hadn’t even though there are already several women who have said that he did do those things. He gave contradictory answers on his taxes, on the one hand saying that he did use the $916 million loss in one year to not pay taxes in future years and then saying that he has paid ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars in taxes. Of course, he may be referring to all the taxes other than the federal income tax. He also said that he was going to convert Medicaid to block grants, which would be a disaster for poor people. Trump repeatedly tried to mend fences with the African American and Hispanic communities but to me those efforts seemed forced and somewhat patronizing.
There was clearly frostiness between the two. There was no handshake and greeting at the beginning and only a cursory one at the end.
So I don’t think the debate helped Trump win people over, though it may have quelled some anxiety among his supporters. Trump has pretty much attacked Clinton with everything he has got. If this does not change things in his favor he is done for. And the early omens are not good. CNN’s poll taken immediately after the debate said that Clinton won by a margin of 57-34%, slightly smaller than the margin after their last debate.
I also think that in this strange campaign, the big set pieces like debates are no longer the drivers of the dynamic. Events that are outside of them, like the recordings, will dominate the conversation.